A Major Step For Safety
May 1, 2002 | 12:00 A.M. EST
CONCORD, N.C. – The groundbreaking “soft-wall” technology that Indianapolis Motor Speedway unveiled Wednesday for the 86th running of the Indianapolis 500 might not be ready for applications to NASCAR superspeedways, H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler said.
Wheeler, the president of Lowe’s Motor Speedway, said his track isn’t ready to use the Steal And Foam Energy Reduction barrier that will be in place in all four turns of the 2.5-mile Indy oval.
Why? For one, Indy is a relatively flat track when compared to other NASCAR facilities, and the higher-banked tracks haven’t been adequately tested. Still, Wheeler, a leading safety advocated, welcomes anything that will make tracks safer.
Wheeler said the worst stock-car crashes on 1.5-mile tracks like LMS don’t come from hitting barriers but when a car hits another car that has stopped.
“The wall hits have not been as bad as on the flatter tracks,” Wheeler said. “That’s something we’ve got to look at. We’ve got to find out how this thing holds up (at Indy). The other problem, the complicating factor, is you’ve got a banked track, and you have different dynamics and physics than you do on a flat track. We’ll just have to see.”
A year ago, stock-car driver Blaise Alexander was killed at Lowe’s Motor Speedway when his ARCA car slammed into the frontstretch wall with the right-front. Wheeler reacted angrily to the death and to what he perceived as a lack of action in the stock-car community toward safety issues.
Now, though, Wheeler said improvements have been made.
“It’s going to be interesting to see how this thing’s working out,” Wheeler said. “All of us feel a whole lot better right now about things than we did a year ago.
“We’ve found out through the years, you want to try to stay ahead of safety. With the head restraints, the better seats, that has really helped us with NASCAR superspeedway racing. Now, we’ve got the soft walls. That’s another plus. It’ll be interesting to see how it works out.”
NASCAR officials were on hand at the announcement in Indianapolis, saying they were optimistic about the soft-wall application for stock cars.
“NASCAR has appreciated working with Tony George and his team,” NASCAR managing director of competition Gary Nelson said. “We are optimistic about the new SAFER wall, and we are looking forward to its development.”
The SAFER project was undertaken by the Indy Racing League and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Midwest Roadside Safety Facility, starting in 1998. NASCAR joined the development in Sept. 2000.
A total of 4,240 feet of Indy’s walls will be covered by the energy-absorbing barrier, 1,060 feet in each turn. The barrier is constructed in 20-foot modules consisting of four rectangular steel tubes that are welded together to form one element. The modules are connected with four internal steel splices. Bundles of 2-inch sheets of extruded, closed-cell polystyrene are placed between the concrete wall and the steel tubing modules every 10 feet. Six or seven sheets of polystyrene are used in each bundle, depending on the location on the module.
“One of the prerequisites presented to us was to create a barrier robust enough to absorb an incredible impact and yet maintain its integrity so the event could continue with little or no delay for repair,” Midwest Roadside Safety Facility director Dr. Dean Sicking said. “The principle behind the wall is it provides a continuous barrier system that will remain parallel to the track and move back as a unit as it dissipates energy. The need for that movement is to prevent pocketing, which is where the barrier wraps around the front of the car, which extremely increases deceleration.”
IMS director of engineering and construction Kevin Forbes said the barrier could be fitted to other tracks.
“We believe this barrier is an appropriate solution for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway,” Forbes said. “It should be able to be adapted to many other tracks, but each will have to be evaluated separately.”
NASCAR drivers hoped to see the barriers on one of their tracks soon.
“From what I hear, they’re getting real close to having something that’s going to be a lot better,” Matt Kenseth said. “I’m look forward to that. Obviously, the safer you can make it, the more comfortable you are and the better you feel about what you’re doing for a living.”
Johnny Benson agrees.
“This is about the best news we have heard,” Benson said. “It’s great that Indianapolis has taken us to the next step in safety. As a driver I’m glad NASCAR is right there supporting them. This will help driver safety now and even more so in the future as more tracks use this technology.
“This should have ramifications across the country and around the world. I think at some point every race track in the country if not the world will go to something like this. I know some short tracks around the country have used a form of softer walls in the past like Styrofoam. It hadn’t worked out or it was really time consuming to clean up. Maybe this will give them something to look at. I’m sure cost is a factor but as this technology becomes more and more available in the future I think the cost will go down and we will be able to afford installing it at most places. I think everyone will look at this.”